July 10, 2016

BEAUTIFUL LOSERS:

DONALD TRUMP, MAN OF FAITH (Matthew Schmitz, August 2016, First Things)

For Peale, "attitudes are more important than facts." The man who displays "a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether." The first fact that Peale's positive thinking had to overcome was the fact of human frailty. Peale knew about the difficulties some encounter in alcohol, in troubled marriages, and in economic hardship, but he never could accept the inevitability of misfortune or that all must pay the wages of sin. Like one of Job's comforters, he told the suffering that they simply needed to look on the bright side. Where the Bible urges man to search his heart and know his faults, Peale encourages him to "make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it ten percent." For Jeremiah the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, but for Peale its dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine.

Thus the necessity of repentance recedes. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, such as Domine, non sum dignus, can be injurious to spiritual health. Yet the gloomy aspect of traditional Christian practice is also the wellspring of Christian compassion. At the moment a Christian asks for forgiveness, he must acknowledge his own weakness and look mercifully on the weakness of others. In the Our Father, the Christian asks that he be forgiven, just as he in turn forgives. From the holy terror that Peale called "fear thoughts" comes the light of Christian love.

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements--his attacks on every vulnerable group--are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

Because Peale was a decent man of sincere if not quite orthodox Christian faith, he never drew out the harsh implications of his views. Trump feels no such restraint, and so has taken Peale's teaching to its logical conclusion. He has called the widow whose house he tried to take a "terrible human being" whose lawyer is a "loser." He has mocked a reporter for having a disfigured hand. He has demeaned a contestant on one of his reality shows by suggesting how she'd look in a pornographic scenario. And he has applauded Planned Parenthood for doing "very good work."

Peale is now largely forgotten, and his bestseller languishes in used book stores. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-sufficient faith that he promoted, and that he imparted to his greatest student. Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain. Both forms of this philosophy have captured the public imagination, and both stand at odds with the faith taught by Christ.

Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ's sake shall find it. At its center stands a truth that we are prone to forget. There are people who cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking. They need something more paradoxical and cruciform.




Posted by at July 10, 2016 9:26 AM

  

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